Sailing twins Courtney and Brianna Reynolds-Smith are gunning for the Paris Olympics, and while it’s been an uphill battle, they’re happy chasing the same dream together, Suzanne McFadden writes.
Courtney and Brianna Reynolds-Smith made a pact before they agreed to start sailing towards the Paris Olympics together.
The 23-year-old twin sisters were best friends growing up, spending a lot of their time on the sea off Auckland’s east coast. They became world youth champions together, too.
But by the end of 2018, the sisters hit a wall in their Olympic campaign in the 470 double-handed dinghy – Courtney struggling with her health – and they decided to split tacks, taking their sailing careers in different directions.
“Our friendship broke down a lot when we stopped sailing together,” Brianna says.
“But then pretty quickly, we mended our relationship. We realised we had to put our relationship as sisters before yachting.
“Since then, that’s been at the forefront of everything we do. We’re sisters first – and then sailing partners.”
Sisters who are seeing the world together – and doing some sailing. Quite a lot of sailing, to be honest.
Switching to the thrilling 49er FX skiff, the duo are in Europe right now on a mission to sail together at an Olympics, and next year’s Paris Games are locked in their sights. It’s a dream they’ve harboured, together and on their own, for the past seven years.
They know it’s a tough ask up against two other Kiwi crews stacked with Olympic medallists – Jo Aleh and Molly Meech in one boat, and Alex Maloney (sailing with Olivia Hobbes) in the other – all vying for a spot on the Olympic start-line on the Mediterranean Sea.
“With Paris, you never know what’s going to happen,” says Courtney. “We’ve fought so hard to get this far, so we will keep pushing, regardless of what the other crews do. Obviously, they’re all really talented sailors. But people roll ankles – you never know.”
The Reynolds-Smiths also have the benefit of an innate understanding that comes with being so close for 23 years.
“It’s like anything – the more sailing you do, the better you get to know each other’s abilities and how each other likes to operate,” says Brianna, who’s studying for a degree in commerce.
“Off the water, we have a very good understanding. On the water, we’ve only just started sailing together again.”
“We’re sorting out how we go about our business again offshore,” adds Courtney, who’s finding her niche as a sailing coach.
The sisters say since they came back together at the end of 2020, it’s rare they don’t see eye-to-eye – though bystanders may perceive it differently.
“Some people will see us talking and think we’re arguing,” says Brianna.
“But we’re not arguing,” Courtney seamlessly picks up the conversation. “We’re just saying truths. B and I just say what’s on our minds, and it works really well.”
“We’re pretty filter-less,” Brianna laughs.
The sisters have loved sailing since they were 10, jumping into Optimist dinghies and following in the wake of their older brother, Aaron Reynolds-Lovegrove. He’s also a professional sailor now and continues to inspire his siblings.
The Westlake Girls’ High students then climbed into a 420 dinghy together, sailing at the 2016 Youth Worlds where they finished sixth. The following year, they moved up into the 470 class, buying a boat from Olympic champions Aleh and Polly Powrie, and began their first Olympic campaign.
At the U23 470 world championships in Japan in 2017, the pair finished eighth, but didn’t realise until the closing ceremony they’d won the U20 world champions title.
But all wasn’t rosy with the twins. Courtney was battling with illness and injury.
“When I did the 470, I was really little – 10kg smaller than I am now. And now I’m at a healthy weight,” she says. “I kept injuring myself, shin splints and stress fractures.” She was suffering from RED-S – the syndrome where athletes don’t get enough fuel to support the energy they’re burning.
“I couldn’t handle keeping my weight that low anymore. At the end of the 2018 season, we both had an inkling it would have to end.”
They decided to split, but both women wanted to keep sailing – still eyeing the Olympics.
Courtney headed to the single-handed Laser Radial: “It was a big goal for me to get healthy, and sail on my own; do something for myself.” She won the New Zealand title in 2020, heading off 10-time masters world champion Scott Leith.
Brianna, in the meantime, carried on in the 470 towards the Tokyo Olympics, with a new sailing partner, Susannah Pyatt. The pair worked their way up to finish 15th at the 2019 world championships – which qualified New Zealand a spot in the Tokyo Olympic fleet.
But they knew they had to follow it up with strong results to gain selection. A fortnight later they were eighth at a World Cup regatta – and then Covid devastated their chances. In Palma, Spain, before the 2020 world championships, the New Zealanders had to abandon their boat and fly home as the world started to lock down. “I knew straight away that was us, done,” Brianna says; Pyatt retired from sailing soon after.
That’s when Courtney began “bugging” her twin – asking if they could join forces once more.
“After three years, I was bored sailing on my own,” Courtney says. “So for a year, I was bugging Brie: ‘I want to keep sailing, I want to go to an Olympics. There could be a spot opening up in the 49er. C’mon, B please!’”
Brianna relented and the sisters decided to try their hand in the 49er FX – the class where Meech and Maloney had won Olympic silver in Rio 2016.
“So we bought a boat at the end of 2020, and decided let’s start training properly and see if we can make this work,” Courtney says.
This time last year, they headed to Europe – where their campaign was again cruelly thwarted by the pandemic.
“We didn’t get to do a lot of racing, because we both caught Covid – but at different events,” Courtney says. At the 2022 junior world champs, where they were sitting in fifth place when Courtney fell ill; when Brianna got sick, they had to pull out of the European champs.
Without results on the board, they couldn’t secure Yachting New Zealand funding for an overseas campaign this year. But they’ve done all they can, from rustling up sponsors to fundraising quiz nights, to return to Europe – with a second-hand skiff bought from Olympic gold medallists Peter Burling and Blair Tuke.
In the Princess Sofia Regatta in Palma earlier this month, the twins “came out punching”, finishing the first day in 11th place (Aleh and Meech led the fleet). But the Reynolds-Smith pair then found gaps in their sailing skills racing in a big fleet of 60 boats and finished the regatta in 47th.
This week at the French Olympic Week in Hyères, the sisters struggled in the wildly changeable conditions, and were 48th after the qualifying races – but all three Kiwi crews failed to make the gold fleet.
“We need to improve to get into the top half of the fleet, but I still think we can,” Brianna says. “We just want to go racing and see what our potential could be. Our first day in Palma was reflective of where we should be.”
Results aside, the sisters say they’re having fun learning the nuances of the 49er FX.
“I’m still getting my head around some of the big breezy wavy conditions in a 49er, and we had a few big crashes early in our campaign,” Courtney says. “Fortunately we’re not capsizing anywhere near as often.”
“That’s hurt the Instagram content, though,” Brianna quips.
Courtney Reynolds-Smith flies through the air after the sisters capsize during training in 2022
The sisters plan to stay in Europe through to the world championships in The Hague in August, but funding is tight. “We’re taking it event by event in terms of being able to fund it. We still need sponsorship to carry on,” Brianna says.
Adds Courtney: “We picked this sport, we could have chosen much cheaper sports like running or netball.”
Brianna handles the team budget – it makes sense, she says, in her sixth year of a commerce degree at the University of Auckland, majoring in commercial law and accounting.
“Most Olympic athletes will tell you a three-year degree will probably take eight years if you’re competing on the world stage,” she says.
Courtney has four papers to go in her sports management degree at Massey University; last summer she did her placement at the Torbay Sailing Club, managing its programmes and coaching. She worked with top youth sailors – and even coached America’s Cup skipper Dean Barker to win silver at the Laser nationals in the masters.
“It’s nice coaching someone who has a really good picture of what they want to do,” she says. “The great part of campaigning is I’m always in that mode, identifying weaknesses or strengths, trying to adapt. I like doing that for others, too, especially young sailors.”
Despite their ups and downs, Team Reynolds-Smith have no doubt they made the right decision to sail together again at the highest level.
“If you’re going to put this much effort and money into something, you first have to love what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with,” Brianna says.
“I don’t know if I’d do this with anyone else,” Courtney replies. “It’s a big investment of your life to spend every day with someone. I’m just glad I’ve got my sister to do it with.”